Irish BCS Hopes Rest on Both Lines

Former Notre Dame coach Dan Devine said football is all about blocking and tacking. Success in 2009 solely rests on that theory.

2008 was a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Irish. After a promising 4-1 start, a 2-5 finish had Notre Dame fans seeing the Mr. Hyde they knew all too well.

They squandered three 4th quarter leads, got embarrassed by Syracuse, and once again were outclassed by USC. Notre Dame found themselves off the mainland on Christmas Eve instead of warmer climates on New Years.

Weis’s stay of execution was followed by Notre Dame’s first bowl win in 15 years. The 49-21 whipping of Hawaii took a foul taste out of their mouths and proved that their ascension to the top of college football was still a possibility.

Notre Dame’s struggles the past two years have attributed to a putrid running game and a porous pass rush.  Weis decided it was time to go into a different direction. Frank Verducci and Randy Hart replaced John Latina and Jappy Oliver on the offensive and defensive lines. Verducci and Hart are excellent teachers with over 60 years of coaching experience between them and bring a lunch pale mentality to their players.

Verducci drilled more fundamentals into his lineman this spring then a piano teacher. Since 2007 the O-line has struggled with the basic fundamentals of blocking. Notre Dame has seen their worst output in years averaging a meager 3.3 yards a carry. That is an area Verducci hopes to improve and signs were shown in the spring and summer. The Irish use a zone blocking scheme and the unit began to block more in unison. There are more contact drills in practice. Verducci has taught the lineman how to explode off the ball better and improve their hand placement. Notre Dame lineman never seemed to initiate contact off the line of scrimmage in the previous two seasons. Verducci has emphasized it all spring and summer and gets on their case if a lineman lunges. Of course Verducci’s job is a lot easier when he gets an experienced group that has accumulated 100 total starts amongst them.

Tackles Sam Young 6-8 320 and Paul Duncan 6-7 315 are ready to silence the critics. Duncan was injured for 11 games in 2007 and last year was beat out by Mike Turkovich. It is his time and he has impressed coaches in the spring with his nastiness. Young’s career to this point has been a huge disappointment and it is time for him to live up to his 5-star ranking coming out of high school. Look for Young and Duncan to be better blockers in the fall as their footwork and hand placements have improved dramatically. Verducci has placed more emphasis in those areas and it showed on the line in the spring game.

Trevor Robinson 6-5 305 and Chris Stewart 6-5 330 are two gargantuan giant guards that you should be kept away from the buffet table. Eric Olsen 6-4 305 is called the hart of the O-line according to Charlie Weis. He has been moved to center to let Robinson and Stewart play the guards. Olsen is the strongest lineman on the team and mentally is capable of calling out the signals in the fall. All three are nasty off the line of scrimmage now its time to do it when it matters.

Last year Stewart was hampered by injuries. This year he is healthy and pounding on opposing defenders in drills. If Stewart locks on to a defender, look out. That help would pay dividends for an anemic running game. Trevor Robinson has been a name since he enrolled early as a freshman, and despite an injury in the spring he might be the best out of the group. He has wan ability to just be flat out nasty on opposing defenders. He pass blocks better than all of them but he is great a delivering the first blow from scrimmage. That will be crucial for Notre Dame’s right tackle position, which will see numerous one on ones. This line has played together and has a divine chemistry coming out of spring and fall camp. The signs are pointing up but we will know the verdict September 5th.

Randy Hart brings quality brings 30 years of coaching experience and a newfound excitement to the D-line. He has a youthful and extremely athletic unit to tutor. Notre Dame was 30th in sacks last year, lacking a consistent pass rush. Unlike his counterpart Verducci, Hart threw out the instructional videos and let the D-line hit each other. This helped improve the unit as a whole and allow Hart to help them on the fly.

Ethan Johnson is the star of the unit even though Darius Fleming took more snaps. Johnson reminds me a lot of Tyson Jackson in his ability to be relentless in pursuit of the Quarterback and he sure has the speed. He had three and a half sacks in 2008 and I expect that to double in 09. Darius Fleming plays the Sam linebacker position but can be easily effective with his hand down. He reminds me of a smaller Jerome Harrison and will be a star on pass rushes and against spread running teams. The surprise of this group who will start from day one is Kapron Lewis-Moore. Lewis-Moore might be the best of the group down the road. He is much bulkier then when he checked in at 250 as a freshman. Lewis-Moore reminds me a lot of Bruce Smith with his build and has the quickness to get off the line and around offensive linemen. He has also bulked up to 280 pounds and still needs to learn other moves but will be high effective on the other end.

Ian Williams was a guaranteed starter last year but the new talent might put him out of a job. Ian Williams was a freshman all-America in 2007 but last year was nowhere to be seen. Hafis Williams the redshirt freshman impressed numerous people and has gone from scout team disruption to first team starter. Hafis is a big strong body that initiates contact right off the snap. Sean Cwyner also proved himself all summer in one on one drills.

Notre Dame’s d-line struggled against the run last year hurt them in crucial spots. All together Hart has a talented deep unit on the D-line and now they just go to play. The Irish finally are loaded at the skill positions. Notre Dame boosts one of the best Aerial assaults in the Nation. An improved running game is the key towards finally making the Irish’s attack balanced.

It all starts with Jimmy Clausen and an arsenal of dynamic wide outs. Clausen threw for 3,000 yards and 24 TDs during his sophomore campaign. 17 interceptions stained a potential breakout season. If he wants to be one of college football’s elite signal callers those mistakes cannot happen. In 7 on 7 drills in the spring and summer Clausen’s improvement was night and day. Maybe bringing his supporting cast out to California for some extra reps has something to do about it.

Clausen’s aerial fleet returns Junior playmaker Golden Tate who hauled in 58 catches for 1,000 yards and averaged 18.6 yards a catch. On the other side is returning Sophomore Michael Floyd who rewrote the Irish freshman record books with 48 catches for 700 yards. Floyd was injured for three games and might have outdone Tate if he stayed healthy. Tate is a major deep threat on every play but has become more polished since his freshman year. He is now a threat on short routes as well. Floyd will be more effective this year moving the chains but is just as much of a deep threat. Floyd will end up being the team’s top receiver this season with 80 catches, 1000 yards, 10 Tds and a Blinkenkoff award. There is a serious traffic jam for the number three receiver.

6-5 Duval Kamara followed up a record setting freshman campaign with a sophomore slump. He is on the rebound, looking great in spring practice with improved route running and speed. He has been sidelined lately with a knee problem in fall camp. 6-4 Deion Walker and 6-3 John Goodman are redshirt freshman vying for the job and both have impressed with their speed and athleticism. Goodman has gotten more praise though for his versatility throwing the ball and do not be surprised if Notre Dame employs him in some special trick packages.

However, all three of these candidates are under fire as 6-1- 200 pound freshman Shaquille Evans put up 9 catches for 77 yards and a score in the open practice and looks more polished than the others. Shaq is physically big for a freshman and runs extremely fast like Tate. Shaq asked for the playbook during his offseason and his quick knowledge of it and his talent alone has him pegged as the number three receiver going into the opener versus Nevada.

Forgotten in the fray is 6-6 260 pound tight end Kyle Rudolph. Kyle caught 26 balls for 500 yards last year and is primed for a breakout year, as defenses will employ more cover 2 to stop Tate and Floyd. Mike Ragone is the team’s fastest tight end and he returns stronger and hungrier than ever after a season ending knee injury. Look for Notre Dame to employ two-tight end sets and allow Ragone to get some one on one opportunities.

The offense has thrived on the pass since Charlie Weis came in. The running game has been an after thought.

The Irish host a stable of capable running backs in Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and Jonas Gray. James Aldridge was moved to fullback and will probably see more carries like Rashawn Powers-Neal did in 2005.

Armando Allen 5-10 200 was tabbed a home-run threat coming out of high school but has not broken a run bigger than 20 yards. He is Notre Dame’s clear number one back who can catch balls out of the backfield and boosts the speed to move the chains. However, he is not an every down back. Robert Hughes 5-11 234 is a house of bricks and can run threw tacklers like a locomotive. However, last year never developed a rhythm that he finished 2007 with. Jonas Gray is a mixture of the two and looks to be the breakout back this season that will overtake Hughes’s spot. Freshman Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick bring an instant spark with their balance of speed and power. However, they will be utilized more in the return game and play in mop up time.

Offensively Jimmy Clausen is way ahead of where Brady Quinn was in his Junior Year. Clausen is poised for a 4,000 yard year, with 30 plus touchdowns, and a Davey O’ Brien Award Nominee. However, that all depends on improved decision-making and seeing a capable running game take shape. We know one of these will change but the other will make life easier.

The skill positions are deep on defense as well going into 2009. Kyle McCarthy returns from a 100-tackle campaign and Harrison Smith joins him at safety after switching from Linebacker. Smith is extremely quick and his smooth transition will not make fans miss David Bruton. At Cornerback Darrin Walls return makes this unit even better. His best friend Rashawn McNeil had 11 pass breakups in 2008, which were the most in school history. True Freshman Robert Blanton staked his claim on the other side as well with a game changing interception versus Purdue. Walls no doubt is one of the teams best lock down corners but it is great to know he is being pushed by the depth behind him.

At Linebacker, Brian Smith is the voice of the unit. Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, and Scott Smith fill out a unit that is experienced and highly athletic. Expect to see sophomore Steven Filer in the mix as well he has competed for that Sam Linebacker spot in the offseason and will probably be used in the Nickel more this season. Freshman Manti Teo is the Notre Dame’s best defensive recruit in a decade and will play from day one at Notre Dame. At 6-2 244 he is physically ready for the college grind and will be great in run support and blitzing off the edge in Jon Tenuta’s aggressive 4-3 scheme.

Notre Dame’s schedule sets up perfectly for a breakout season. They face several teams that are breaking in a new quarterback and replacing veterans from last year. The season could be derailed right off the bat when Chris Ault and Nevada’ pistol offense invade South Bend on September 5th. Michigan will be looking to make a statement and have two freshman Quarterbacks that are capable of running their system. Michigan State has won six times in South Bend, Pittsburgh’s passing game will improve, and Stanford looks to be better by season’s end. USC might have a new quarterback but Notre Dame has yet to be competitive since 2005. The deal is Notre Dame is more experienced and talented most of their opponents excluding SC. Defensively they are a nightmare for opposing foes and have the ability to outscore them. All they have to do is be the best team in the stadium like coach Holtz said and victories will pile up. I know it’s crazy but this team could finish undefeated. I’ll be a realist and say they go 10-2 and find themselves back in the BCS.

The schedule is too favorable to suggest otherwise. If both lines underperform again Coach Devine will be the one telling who told you so.

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